Deresiewicz had had an elite education as an undergraduate at Columbia University and a graduate student at Yale University. He taught English literature at Yale for ten years. But then he decided that he was part of an educational system that was no longer providing a truly liberal education devoted to thinking about the big questions of life--questions about the meaning and purpose of life. Instead of this, he saw that education in the elite schools--like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford--had become a purely vocational and technical education to prepare students to enter high-paying and high-status jobs.
To gain entrance to such elite education, students had been working hard since elementary school to build their resumes, to achieve high GPAs, and to score high enough on the SAT exam to be admitted into the most prestigious schools. But once they got to those schools, they often could not explain why they were there, except to say that they were building the credentials necessary for careers that would give them the wealth and power of an upper class life. These students were smart and successful, but also empty and anxious. Many of these students would find no personal satisfaction in the careers they would enter. As one student told Deresiewicz, these students had become "excellent sheep."
So Deresiewicz began to wonder whether these students would have been happier--better able to live a meaningful, purposeful life--if they had not had an elite education, but instead had attended some small liberal arts college or public university, where they might have sought a liberal education in which thinking and learning are pursued for their own sake rather than as a means for career advancement. They might have learned how to find a job doing something they enjoyed doing, a job that would give them a comfortable living but perhaps not great wealth or status. They might have become inquisitive thinkers rather than excellent sheep.
Deresiewicz's essay gained lots of attention. He was invited to lecture at many schools--including the elite schools--where he provoked debate over his bleak assessment of American higher education.
Recently, he has elaborated his essay into a book--Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & The Way to a Meaningful Life (New York: Free Press, 2014). This book reminds me of Allan Bloom's famous book--The Closing of the American Mind--first published in 1987, which is also an attack on American higher education for failing to provide the liberal education that would sustain democracy and elevate the souls of students. In fact, Deresiewicz quotes from Bloom more often than anyone else. Deresiewicz does not indicate, however, that Bloom's ideas are mostly borrowed from his teacher--Leo Strauss--and that Bloom's account of liberal education is particularly indebted to Strauss's writing on liberal education from the early 1960s.
Comparing these writings of Strauss, Bloom, and Deresiewicz is instructive for thinking about the role of liberal education in liberal democracy, and particularly for thinking about whether liberal democracy can cultivate human excellence through liberal education, or whether liberal democracy must fail to provide the mental culture necessary for liberal education.
On June 6, 1959, Strauss delivered "What Is Liberal Education?" as an address at the tenth annual graduation exercise of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago. The Basic Program had been founded in 1946 by President Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer Adler as a Great Books program for adults in the extension division of the University of Chicago. Like St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland, the Basic Program was (and still is) organized around a list of Great Books. Bloom was a teacher in the Basic Program when Strauss gave his speech, so Bloom was probably in the audience.
I was a teacher in the Basic Program from 1974 to 1978. The courses are non-credit, and they do not earn any professional degree. The students in the Basic Program are older people, with an average age of around 50-55, who want to study the Great Books for the intellectual pleasure of doing it. They bring to the classroom their experience as mature adults who have had successful careers, and many of whom have raised their children.
Strauss began his lecture by explaining the connection of liberal education to the reading of the Great Books. "Liberal education is education in culture or toward culture," he observed, and culture is the cultivation of the mind, which requires teachers. The teachers are themselves pupils; but ultimately there must be teachers who are not pupils, teachers who can teach themselves, and these are the great minds. The greatest minds are so extremely rare that we are not likely to ever meet one. "It is a piece of good luck if there is a single one alive in one's time." Consequently, most pupils have access to the greatest minds only through reading the Great Books that the great minds have left behind. Liberal education must then consist in studying carefully these Great Books. In this study, the more experienced pupils help the less experienced pupils (Liberalism Ancient and Modern, 3).
"Education in the highest sense is philosophy," Strauss declared, but "we cannot be philosophers," and therefore we cannot acquire philosophic education. We can only acquire liberal education, in which we are compelled to read the greatest books written by the great minds. In doing this, "the mediator between us and the greatest minds" is Socrates, who never wrote books, but he did read books. "We cannot be philosophers, but we can love philosophy; we can try to philosophize" by listening to the conversation between the great minds that we can generate by studying the Great Books (LAM, 6-7).
"It was once said," Strauss observed, that democracy is the regime in which all or most adults are men of virtue and wisdom who have developed their minds to a high degree, so that a democratic society is "the rational society" and a universal aristocracy. In such a democracy, all citizens would have a liberal education. But notice that in saying "it was once said," Strauss does not say this himself. Far from being a universal aristocracy, modern democracy is actually a "mass culture," which is "a culture which can be appropriated by the meanest capacities without any intellectual and moral effort whatsoever and at a very low monetary price."
In such a society, liberal education cannot be the education of a universal aristocracy. Strauss explained:
"Liberal education is the counterpoison to mass culture, to the corroding effects of mass culture. . . . Liberal education is the ladder by which we try to ascend from mass democracy to democracy as originally meant. Liberal education is the necessary endeavor to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society. Liberal education reminds those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear of human greatness." (LAM, 5)After the publication of this lecture, Strauss was asked by The Fund for Adult Education to prepare another essay on "Liberal Education and Responsibility" that would explain what he meant in the preceding passage about liberal education being the effort "to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society."
In this essay, Strauss claimed that according to classical philosophy, there must be a conflict between the city as a cave and philosophy as the life of those few who can ascend out of the cave to see the light of the sun. There must then be a radical separation between the education of philosophers and the education of nonphilosophers. The philosopher is capable of a philosophic education. Among the nonphilosophers, gentlemen need a liberal education, and the people need a religious education. "The pursuits becoming the gentleman are said to be politics and philosophy." Liberal education is "a preparation for philosophy," and philosophy transcends gentlemanship (LAM, 13). Since philosophers cannot rule the city directly, the next best form of rule is the rule of the gentlemen, which is "only a reflection of the rule of the philosophers, who are understood to be the men best by nature and best by education" (LAM, 14).
There is a fundamental conflict between the philosophers and the nonphilosophers, because they aim at different ends.
"The philosopher as philosopher is responsible to the city only to the extent that by doing his own work, by his own well-being, he contributes to the well-being of the city: philosophy has necessarily a humanizing or civilizing effect. The city needs philosophy, but only mediately or indirectly, not to say in a diluted form. Plato has presented this state of things by comparing the city to a cave from which only a rough and steep ascent leads to the light of the sun: the city as city is more closed to philosophy than open to it." (LAM, 15)Similar to this ancient conception of the mixed regime is the modern republicanism manifest in The Federalist Papers. "In the best case, Hamilton's republic will be ruled by the men of the learned professions. This reminds one of the rule of the philosophers, but only reminds one of it. Will the men of the learned professions at least be men of liberal education? It is probable that the men of the learned professions will chiefly be lawyers" (LAM, 17).
But while classical philosophy saw society as closed to philosophy, Strauss explained, modern philosophy sought to open society to philosophy, which required a new kind of liberal education.
"Just as liberal education in its original sense was supported by classical philosophy, so the new education derives its support, if not its being, from modern philosophy. According to classical philosophy, the end of the philosophers is radically different from the end or ends actually pursued by the nonphilosophers. Modern philosophy comes into being when the end of philosophy is identified with the end which is capable of being actually pursued by all men. More precisely, philosophy is now asserted to be essentially subservient to the end which is capable of being actually pursued by all men. . . . In this respect, the modern conception of philosophy is fundamentally democratic. The end of philosophy is now no longer what one may call disinterested contemplation of the eternal, but the relief of man's estate. . . . Philosophy or science was no longer an end in itself, but in the service of human power, or a power to be used for making human life longer, healthier, and more abundant." (LAM, 19-20)Originally, in the seventeenth century, this modern project of Enlightenment was executed by "the philosopher-scientist" working through "enlightened princes." (Here Strauss was implicitly referring to Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes.) But since then, Strauss indicated, philosophy and science have been separated, so that philosophers do not need to be scientists, and scientists do not need to be philosophers. Science has become supreme in its authority, although it no longer has any essential connection to wisdom.
Finally, Strauss offered his general assessment of liberal education today:
"What then are the prospects for liberal education within mass democracy? What are the prospects for the liberally educated to become again a power in democracy? We are not permitted to be flatterers of democracy precisely because we are friends and allies of democracy. While we are not permitted to remain silent on the dangers to which democracy exposes itself as well as human excellence, we cannot forget the obvious fact that by giving freedom to all, democracy also gives freedom to those who care for human excellence. No one prevents us from cultivating our garden or from setting up outposts which may come to be regarded by many citizens as salutary to the republic and as deserving of giving to it its tone. . . . We are indeed compelled to be specialists, but we can try to specialize in the most weighty matters or, to speak more simply and more nobly, in the one thing needful. As matters stand, we can expect more immediate help from the humanities rightly understood than from the sciences, from the spirit of perceptivity and delicacy than from the spirit of geometry. If I am not mistaken, this is the reason why liberal education is now becoming almost synonymous with the reading in common of the Great Books. No better beginning could have been made." (LAM, 24)Reading Strauss's essays on liberal education brings to mind at least five questions that also come up in the reading of Bloom and Deresiewicz.
The first question is whether liberal democracy really can promote human excellence, including philosophy, through liberal education. In response to those critics of Strauss who have identified him as an enemy of liberal democracy, perhaps even a fascist, his defenders have quoted the third sentence in the passage above: "We are not permitted to be flatterers of democracy precisely because we are friends and allies of democracy." Strauss's defenders can argue that while recognizing the problems with liberal democracy, Strauss could also recognize that liberal democratic freedom gives freedom to the human excellence that can be cultivated through liberal education.
William Altman has responded by questioning the sincerity of Strauss's "Golden Sentence" here. After all, Strauss says "we" not "I" in this sentence, in contrast to the first three paragraphs of "Liberal Education and Responsibility," in which Strauss uses the words "I" and "my" 29 times. But, still, we might note that when Strauss says that democratic freedom includes the freedom for choosing human excellence, he is repeating a thought that he has seen in Book 8 of Plato's Republic, where democracy is identified as the only bad regime that allows freedom to choose the philosophic life. And this is the Platonic teaching that Altman stresses as the Platonic opening to liberal democracy.
In asking whether liberal education can cultivate human excellence, we must wonder what kinds of intellectual and moral excellences it might cultivate. Can liberal education cultivate the intellectual virtues of wisdom? Or does liberal education in a liberal commercial society tend to promote analytical and technical forms of intelligence rather than the intelligence of the wise man? Can liberal education cultivate the moral virtues of good character? Or does the skepticism and relativism of modern liberal education tend to weaken moral character?
Strauss insisted on a strict separation of intellectual virtue and moral virtue, and he declared that the intellectual life of philosophy was "transmoral," which suggests that he might have seen liberal education as aiming at intellectual but not moral excellence.
The second question is whether the Enlightenment project of modern philosophy has succeeded. Has modern liberal democracy succeeded in creating an open society in which there is no longer a conflict between philosophy and society? If so, does that mean that classical philosophy has been refuted? Or has the openness of the liberal society created a relativistic conception of truth and value that denies the capacity for reason grasping the true and the good, and thus denies the possibility of philosophy and the philosophic life?
The third question is whether the classical philosophers, as interpreted by Strauss, were correct in seeing the philosophic life as the "disinterested contemplation of the eternal," and if so, whether such a life can be achieved through liberal education today. Some of Strauss's critics have questioned whether his account of philosophy as a purely contemplative activity is adequate. After all, Socrates and other classical philosophers engaged in discussions of practical or moral topics concerning how human beings ought to live.
Moreover, Strauss is confusing in what he says about the connection between philosophy and liberal education. On the one hand, he separates philosophic education from liberal education. On the other hand, he says that liberal education is "a preparation for philosophy." He insists on a strict division between philosophers and nonphilosophers. True philosophers teach themselves, and so they don't need liberal education. Those engaged in liberal education, including Strauss himself, cannot be philosophers. And yet, Strauss declares: "we can love philosophy; we can try to philosophize." So does this mean that those who show their love of philosophy in liberal education are somehow in between the philosophers and the nonphilosophers?
The fourth question is whether natural science is part of liberal education. If philosophy means "quest for the truth about the most weighty matters or for the comprehensive truth or for the truth about the whole or for the science of the whole" (13), then surely philosophy and liberal education must include natural science. And, indeed, Strauss indicates that for the classical philosophers and for the early modern philosophers, philosophy and science were united. But now philosophy and science are generally considered as separated, because philosophy belongs to the humanities. And Strauss suggests that liberal education today must draw more from the humanities than the sciences. One can see this in the Basic Program's list of Great Books, which is devoted mostly to literature and philosophy, although it does include some selections from Euclid's Elements, Newton's Principia, and Darwin's Origin of Species.
The fifth question is whether Socrates is the true model of philosophy for liberal education and "the mediator between us and the greatest minds." Strauss, Bloom, and Deresiewicz all point to Socrates as the model for liberal education, particularly in the image of Socrates ascending out of the cave. But Bloom is impressed by Nietzsche's attack on the Socratic conception of philosophy in proposing a new conception of the philosopher as an artistic and religious creator of new values, which shows the will to power rather than the will to truth. Similarly, Deresiewicz insists that modern liberal education is best rooted in "aestheticism, the religion of art," in which human meaning and value and purpose arise as artful creations of the human spirit. So who's the true hero for liberal education today--Socrates or Nietzsche?
To be continued . . .